Insurrections often are propagated upon misinformation. So too are the most recent band of domestic terrorist who like to hide behind our most sacred American institutions. In this series, I want to explore the Bill of Rights and why some of the hype and hyperbole thrown around by the extremist is not just wrong but dangerously misguided.
Over the next several weeks, I will discuss the history of our constitutionally protected rights and why Congress chose to codify these and not others. I am not an attorney so I will not go into some of the legal aspects of these amendments, so please don’t ask me if your religious obsession for cordite is protected by Amendment 1 or Amendment 2. I plan to focus on why these amendments exist.
Today, I want to discuss just part of Amendment 1:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Nothing defines the history of English-speaking peoples more than the debate over the intersection of religion and government. After all, it was just after Martin Luther posted his theses that Henry VIII took the radical step (unrelated to Luther’s proposed reforms which Henry repudiated) and threw the Roman Church out of England in 1534. This schism between church and state will continue well into the early settlement of the Americas as protestant religious flourished in England but began to bristle at the establishment Church of England. Many of the early settlers to North America came with the express interest of separating themselves from the control of the Church of England.
Despite the fact that many of the colonies (not just British but also Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, and French) in the Americas were established as havens from religious persecution, most of these colonies[i] did not practice tolerance of any religion other than the local majority practice. New England was primarily Calvinist, Quebec was almost entirely Roman Catholic, and Virginia and the Carolinas were Anglican. Furthermore, as colonies of Great Britain, all high offices were legally restricted to members of the Church of England, tithes were collected to support Anglican parishes, and failure to attend church services often carried a civil or even criminal penalty.
It wasn’t until 1779 when, then governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson drafted a bill that would guarantee the religious freedoms of Virginians of all faiths. The bill was never passed into law. In 1787 when the US Constitution was first drafted, it only mentioned religion once in that it expressly prohibits the use of religious tests as qualification for public office. This clause, however, had not real import as most stated still restricted office holders to followers of the Christian faith.
In 1785, James Madison argued against state support of Christian religious instruction. Madison would go on to draft resolves to Congress that would be included in the Bill of Rights that would provide constitutional protection for certain individual liberties including freedom of religion. When the First Amendment was adopted on December 15, 1791. It established a separation of church and state that prohibited the federal government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” It also prohibits the government, in most cases, from interfering with a person’s religious beliefs or practices. This, however, still only applied to federal government and it would not be until the Fourteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868, extended religious freedom by preventing states from enacting laws that would advance or inhibit any one religion.
While we celebrate the idea of religious freedom in America, the reality of intolerance in America is far more prevalent. One need only look to the current right-wing insurrection to see evidence of its hold on the American psyche. The current insurrectionist even like to turn this whole situation on its head and argue that the chrisitian majority is discriminated against because they cannot force their religion on others[ii]. Like most of our rights in the Bill of Rights, Freedom of Religion is an ideal we should strive for rather than a reality.
[i] Dutch “New Amsterdam” being one exception as the Netherlands holds religious toleration, despite the established state church, to be a core national value and Pennsylvania, although chiefly a Quaker settlement, welcoming all regardless of religious doctrine or practice.